Although people have used psilocybin mushrooms ceremonially and recreationally for centuries, they’ve garnered new attention from researchers and mental health professionals as a possible treatment for depression and other psychological disorders.
It was the recent success of ketamine, a hallucinogenic anesthetic, as a safe, effective treatment for depression that prompted new studies into using mushrooms to treat depression. These new studies were permitted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the purpose of testing the usefulness of the chemical compound psilocybin in the treatment of depression.
What Are “Mushrooms?”
Psilocybin mushrooms refers to several species of mushrooms that contain a chemical called psilocybin. It’s psilocybin that gives mushrooms both hallucinogenic effects and therapeutic benefits for treating depression. People also report feelings of increased calmness, even tranquility, when under the influence of mushrooms.
In an exploratory study published in April 2021, psilocybin was found to be four times more effective than common antidepressants, as well as working about four times more rapidly.
Another study showed mushrooms to be as effective in relieving depression as escitalopram (Lexapro), a popular antidepressant. Patients made a far more rapid improvement from depression than they did with escitalopram. Furthermore, 6 weeks later, those treated with psilocybin reported increased feelings of well-being and better emotional control.
Other research conducted by the prestigious Johns-Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research showed similar effects.
How Do Psilocybin Mushrooms Work?
Our brains are reliant on complex arrangements of nerve cells that signal each other using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Other brain cells called astrocytes produce hormones that affect blood flow in the brain, which in turn regulates activity levels. These two systems work together to make sure our thinking, behaving, and feeling are all in agreement—except when they’re not working well.
Psilocybin found in mushrooms briefly interrupts the brain’s activities causing a kind of “reset,” which results in better nerve signaling and communication, more normal levels of neurotransmitters, and improved blood flow to underactive areas of the brain.
Pros and Cons of Treating Depression with Mushrooms
As with all interventions in health, there are benefits and drawbacks to treating depression with psilocybin. As formal, standardized research has been observed for less than 10 years, a comprehensive pros-and-cons profile hasn’t been developed yet. Here’s where things stand now:
- Rapid response of a few hours to a week. In contrast, oral antidepressants may take up to 4 weeks to show results, especially in people with treatment-resistant depression.
- Resets the brain’s natural chemical balances, restoring neurotransmitter levels.
- Psilocybin provides long-lasting relief. Two doses of psilocybin gave study participants a month of relief from their symptoms of depression. In some patients, only a single dose was needed to give four weeks of relief.
- Psilocybin is not addictive.
- Psilocybin is safe when administered in a controlled clinical setting.
- Psilocybin derived from mushrooms can relieve anxiety, even chronic anxiety that typically accompanies depression.
- There is limited access to psilocybin. In the United States, these types of mushrooms are a Schedule I drug and thus illegal, except when they’re used in FDA-approved research.
- Psilocybin doesn’t produce long-lasting side effects. However, hallucinations are the most common side-effect. Although they can be very pleasant, they may also be frightening or distressing. They fade within hours of administration, but they can be confusing.
The Clinical Experience
Being treated for depression with psilocybin is drastically different from recreational use. In a mental health clinic, a person receives a purified, refined form of psilocybin. It’s administered in a controlled environment under the care of medical professionals to ensure that the treatment will be safe and effective.
Treatment for Depression
Since 2008, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has been used as a rapid, painless, and non-invasive treatment for depression. In TMS, a powerful and precise magnetic field is applied to an area of the brain that regulates mood. Many people experience no side effects and receive lasting relief from depression through TMS.
This blog post is meant to be educational in nature and does not replace the advice of a medical professional. See full disclaimer.
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